What Alex Avila Has Meant To The Tigers

ARLINGTON, TX - Alex Avila #13 of the Detroit Tigers reacts after striking out against the Texas Rangers in Game One of the American League Championship Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Alex Avila isn't hitting so far in the playoffs, but don't forget how unlikely it is that he's here in the first place.

The story of Alex Avila doesn't get old. In the fifth round of the 2008 draft, the Tigers drafted the son of their assistant general manager. It wasn't a nepotism pick -- not in the fifth round. Going after players with organizational and family ties is more of a 47th-round thing if you know they aren't high on any draft boards. But Alex Avila hit .343/.441/.615 as an Alabama senior while learning how to catch. Someone was going to take him, and the Tigers made sure they got him.

Still, he wasn't a top prospect. He certainly wasn't close to Baseball America's top-100 list, and in the 2009 Prospect Handbook, he was ranked as the #20 prospect in the Tigers' system, just above Clete Thomas and 15 spots below Jeff Larish. The Tigers were aggressive with him, though. Really, really aggressive. After the draft, he played a half-season in A-ball. The next season, he started in AA before a September call-up. Then he was in the majors, splitting time as a starting catcher. First-round picks usually don't move that quickly. Let alone fifth-round picks.

I wrote about Avila's formula before -- have Tommy Lasorda come to your necro-baptism or something, and you have a great chance of being a great hitting catcher -- but that was in June, when there was still a chance that he could be a first-half wonder. He got better in the second half. Now we can really see what kind of season he had. Here's a list of catchers younger than 25 who've had an OPS+ of 140 or better:

Player Year OPS+ Age Tm PA HR BA OBP SLG
Alex Avila 2011 143 24 DET 551 19 .295 .389 .506
Joe Mauer 2006 144 23 MIN 608 13 .347 .429 .507
Mike Piazza 1994 140 25 LAD 441 24 .319 .370 .541
Mike Piazza 1993 151 24 LAD 602 35 .318 .370 .561
Ted Simmons 1975 142 25 STL 649 18 .332 .396 .491
Carlton Fisk 1972 162 24 BOS 514 22 .293 .370 .538
Johnny Bench 1972 166 24 CIN 652 40 .270 .379 .541
Johnny Bench 1970 141 22 CIN 671 45 .293 .345 .587
Bill Freehan 1967 144 25 DET 618 20 .282 .389 .447
Joe Torre 1966 156 25 ATL 614 36 .315 .382 .560
Joe Torre 1965 140 24 MLN 594 27 .291 .372 .489
Rudy York 1938 140 24 DET 557 33 .298 .417 .579
Rudy York 1937 151 23 DET 417 35 .307 .375 .651
William Fischer 1915 151 24 CHI 329 4 .329 .384 .449

It's a mix of All-Stars, Hall of Famers, and should-be Hall of Famers -- and Avila's on the list. This isn't to say that he'll have a Ted Simmons-type career, but it's a note of appreciation for just how rare his season was. Decades pass without a comparable one. 

He hasn't hit so far in the playoffs, though, and while that's probably a small-sample goblin messing around with things, there are always concerns with catchers:

He's clearly not right. Perhaps we're finally seeing the grueling effects of catching 133 games during the regular season, more than any of his peers in the AL. He's taken so many foul balls to the face mask, shoulders and arms, it's amazing this all didn't catch up with him sooner. If this were a boxing match, the ref would've stopped the fight in June.

Here's visual support for the above assertion. The dude almost caught on fire this year:

With the Tigers down 2-0 in the ALCS, there's a chance that Avila never gets the bat going, and his 2011 playoff line will end up looking completely miserable. That would be an unfortunate way to end the year, considering his that his season was historic by young-catcher standards. He's why the Tigers have such a fearsome middle of the order, and the middle of the order is what will need to dig them out of this ALCS hole. If he's as good as he was in the regular season, the Tigers still have a decent shot.

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